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Coronavirus In Jails And Prisons

San Quentin prisoners launch a hunger strike to protest inhumane conditions; amid an outbreak, a for-profit healthcare provider refuses to test everyone in an Ohio jail; and cases are spiking at Washington state’s Coyote Ridge Corrections Center.

Weeks before the first reported cases of COVID-19 in prisons and jails, correctional healthcare experts warned that all the worst aspects of the U.S. criminal justice system — overcrowded, aging facilities lacking sanitary conditions and where medical care is, at best, sparse; too many older prisoners with underlying illnesses; regular flow of staff, guards, healthcare workers in and out of facilities — would leave detention facilities, and their surrounding communities, vulnerable to outbreaks. Despite those early warnings, even jails and prisons that believed they were well-prepared have seen a rapid spread of the virus. On a daily basis over the next several months, The Appeal will be examining the coronavirus crisis unfolding in U.S. prisons and jails, COVID-19’s impact on surrounding communities and how the virus might reshape our lives. Read Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s updates.

On Monday, men housed in San Quentin’s Badger Unit launched a hunger strike to protest what they describe as inhumane conditions at the California prison where nearly 1,300 incarcerated people and 114 staff have tested positive for COVID following a botched prisoner transfer. 

The Appeal’s Kira Lerner talked to the hunger strikers who said their unit of tiny two-person cells makes it impossible to socially distance. 

“[T]he cells are filthy and we are not being given cleaner to maintain them,” one source told Lerner. “Some of us are being housed together when the whole thing is to keep us six feet away from each other.”  

Lerner also reports that Juan Moreno Haines, an incarcerated journalist and regular contributor to The Appeal, has tested positive for COVID-19. Haines has written extensively about conditions in San Quentin, including a pre-COVID story about how easily the flu virus sweeps through the prison—and that seeking treatment means ending up in solitary confinement.

“During flu season,” Haines wrote in February, “incarcerated people at San Quentin know high fevers mean you are going to the hold.”

The Appeal published Lerner’s report the same day the California Senate’s Public Safety Committee held a special hearing on San Quentin’s COVID-19 outbreak. Lawmakers and experts excoriated California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials for their handling of the outbreak, with Sen. Nancy Skinner, the committee’s chairperson, describing it as “abhorrent.”

Members of the Montgomery County Jail Coalition are urging public health officials to test everyone in the Dayton, Ohio, jail for COVID-19—something the county’s public health department agrees needs to be done. But NaphCare, the jail’s private, for-profit healthcare provider, is refusing to conduct the tests, telling the Dayton Daily News that “it would not provide very useful information.”

More than two-dozen people housed in the jail and five staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, Cornelius Frolik reports. The jail is also overcrowded, holding 600 people in a facility designed for 443. According to documents shared with Frolik by an attorney, the county’s public health department has received multiple complaints that the jail isn’t doing enough to protect prisoners from COVID-19. 

In late March, WBUR reported on the services NaphCare provides to sheriff’s departments. Reporters Beth Healy and Christine Willmsen told the story of Rodrick Pendleton, a 51-year-old truck driver who died at the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston in 2015. According to people incarcerated with Pendleton, he died after days of being sick, including throwing up in a pail “just feet from NaphCare nurses.” 

*On June 15, we wrote about an outbreak at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Eastern Washington state. At that point, 79 prisoners had fallen ill and another 1,815 had been placed into quarantine. The nearest hospital to Coyote Ridge is one  hour away and community medical resources are thin, consisting only of a team of volunteer EMS professionals. 

The Tri-City Herald is reporting that cases at Coyote Ridge have spiked in the last two weeks, with 171 prisoners and 47 staff testing positive for COVID-19. Two prisoners have died, one on June 17 and the second on June 22. The Washington Department of Corrections has had to bring in the National Guard to help administer tests, and officials told the newspaper that anyone who tests negative will be tested a second time. To separate the sick from the well, beds have been set up in the prison’s chapel, and two 75-bed tents were erected in the prison yard. 

*There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at the Sheridan Federal Correctional Institution in Oregon, but the lack of infections has come at a price, Oregon Public Broadcasting reports. A petition for release filed earlier this week on behalf of John Stirling, sentenced earlier this year for smuggling meth, describes “draconian” lockdowns, People are confined to their cells—sometimes triple-bunked—for up to 72 hours. According to the petition, which also asks the court to require the Federal Bureau of Prisons to address conditions of confinement at Sheridan, Stirling, 65, has underlying health issues that put him at risk of dying from COVID-19. In a note to his attorney, Stirling said he was allowed out of his cell for only four hours over a two week period and that he and fellow prisoners have been denied medical care, “phones, showers, email and quality food.” 

*Weeks after a COVID-19 outbreak at the Neuse Correctional Institution in Goldsboro, North Carolina infected more than half the people in custody, the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS) transferred a bus full of men with underlying health conditions to the prison, Triad CityBeat’s Jordan Green reports. A DPS spokesperson told Green that the prison is one of the safest places for prisoners with underlying conditions, considering that its population “either tested positive and were presumed recovered (meaning they are not contagious) or were found to be COVID-19 negative.” But the men Green interviewed say they weren’t tested before the transfer, and that social distancing at Neuse Correctional is impossible. In early June, the ACLU of North Carolina filed a lawsuit against DPS over prison conditions; last month, the judge overseeing the case ordered DPS to stop all transfers of incarcerated people “unless they’re first tested for COVID-19.”

*This afternoon, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order requiring people living in counties with 20 or more positive COVID-19 cases to wear a mask while inside a business or other buildings open to the public, and outdoor public spaces when social distancing is impossible. The order comes as infections skyrocket across Texas; county jails are particularly hard hit. On Tuesday, people protested a meeting of the Hays County Commissioners Court demanding the release of pre-trial detainees. There are at least 40 incarcerated people and 11 staff infected with COVID-19 at the Hays County jail.